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Unlawful Reentry Fuels Growth of Federal Convictions

Almost half of the growth in federal immigration convictions is due to enforcement of a particular offense- unlawful reentry into the U.S.
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel walk along a section of the recently-constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 in Nogales, Arizona. John Moore / Getty Images

Attempts by immigrants to reenter the country illegally account for nearly half of the doubling in the last two decades of offenders sentenced in federal court, according to a Pew Research Center report released Tuesday.

Unlawful reentry convictions accounted for 48 percent of the growth of federal court convictions from 1992 to 2012, while drug offenses were responsible for 22 percent of the growth, the Pew study found.

Reentry convictions rose from 690 cases to 19,463. For all convictions, the total went from 36,564 to 75,867.

Unlawful entry is a federal crime; immigrants who are charged with it have entered or tried to enter the U.S. illegally more than once. They also may have tried to enter the U.S. after having been officially deported. Most are apprehended at the border by the Border Patrol.

The increased numbers of unlawful reentry convictions are part of a stepped up immigration enforcement which started under the Bush administration, explains Mark Hugo Lopez, Director of the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project and one of the report's authors. Prior to 2005, there were more voluntary returns - people crossing the border were allowed to return without charges.

The data points to a shift toward a more "high consequence strategy to make it more difficult for people to return to the U.S.," says Lopez.

The rise in reentry convictions helped bring about a change in the makeup of convicted offenders. Latinos made up 23 percent of sentenced offenders in 1992, but by 2012, they were 48 percent of that population. Also, the share of offenders who were not U.S. citizens increased from 22 percent to 46 percent.

The average length of prison sentence for those convicted of unlawful re-entry was two years, Pew reported.